Tuesday, December 19, 2006

IT Best Practices

This is the text of a speech I delivered at the National Intitutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Ladies and gentlemen, today I speak to you in your capacity as employees of different branches of NIH, doing a wide variety of different jobs. As such, you are collectively responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of information technology expenditures each year.

In the course of your work, you help directly and indirectly to shape the IT landscape in this country and in the world. For instance, this place is ground zero for bioinformatics. Tell that to your kids next time they mock your efforts to do something on your home computer or navigate the web.

It is a little scary, isn’t it? What if people find out? Remember the flak that George Bush Sr. got for never having seen a supermarket scanner?

The truth is you don’t have to be an expert in IT to fulfill your role as a gatekeeper in Information Technology. Follow my advice and you’ll do it right every time, and “Best Practices” are the key. That is the term for the body of knowledge, developed through trial and error, that represents the current consensus on the best way to do specific things. Your job, then is not to know IT, it is to identify the best practices that apply and implement them. If you do so, things are likely to go right, and it will be difficult to fault you if they go wrong.

For example, the best practice for adding RAM to your home computer is to ask your teenager to do it.

Generally speaking, best practices should always begin with one particular step, and that is “Plan Carefully.” Information technologies can be very complex and involve many people with varying needs. Decision making is very complex. At the outset of any project remember the words of Aristotle, “Well begun is half done.”

In addition to planning, accountability is also essential. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. You don’t want the hardware guy to be able to say it’s a software problem, and the software guy to be able to say it’s a hardware problem. Then you are left holding the bag.

Another rule is don’t cut corners on quality assurance and testing. It will cost you $10 to fix a problem after it has been deployed for every $1 to catch it and fix it in development and testing.

Best Practices are all you need to know to succeed. Then, if you are smart, you will get somebody to help you. Somebody like me who knows and believes in Best Practices.

The first thing I will do for you is a SCAN. That is a Standardized, Collaborative Assessment of Needs. It is a systematic, needs based approach to planning. Build to the state of the need, not the state of the art. Too often people build to the state of the art and find themselves on the “bleeding edge,” struggling with expensive and buggy software.

We survey people and interview executives across the enterprise to identify users and assess their needs. We tabulate our findings, identify solutions, formulate recommendations that embody best practices, build a working prototype, and present our findings, recommendations and prototype. Along the way, we facilitate communication across the enterprise and build consensus around the proposed solutions.

We recently were hired by a client to do a SCAN for them. We recommended that they reengineer one of their core business processes, taking it from a manual, ad hoc, poor quality, labor intensive, expensive system to an electronic database with a browser interface for data entry and reporting over the internet. They were very happy with the report. And they contracted with us to do the development and implementation of the system.

Like it or not, you are leaders in IT, gatekeepers on the Information Super-highway. Make best practices your guiding star, and you will succeed. If I can be of further assistance to any of you, please let me know.

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